When I learned a gunman had met congregants inside Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, and opened fire, killing nine people, my heart and mind immediately turned to the community in Charleston, and to the church’s parishioners and their families. As a Sikh American, this act of violence was all too familiar to me. I recalled the events of August 5, 2012, when a Neo-Nazi entered a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and shot ten worshippers, killing six and then himself. I then thought of the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four young girls were massacred. This is yet another domestic act of terrorism, directed at a minority community at the place they hold most sacred.
Emanuel AME Church is a storied institution in Charleston’s African American community, and is referred to as the “Oldest AME Church in the South.” It was the home church for Denmark Vesey when he led his slave uprising in 1822, and has maintained a central place in the community to this day. It is a gathering place for the Black community, a symbol of strength, and a place of worship and fellowship. As a Sikh, I connect to this loss of safety, to the desecration of a powerful home of a people, and a space in which people connect with the Divine and build community strength.
As the word “terrorism” implies, acts like this are intended to terrorize a community, to remove its sense of safety, of power, of security. But these things – safety, security, community, and power, in our places of worship – these are civil rights, and we cannot let a bigot, or a murderer, or a terrorist take these things away from us. Although we are in pain, although we may grieve, we cannot allow ourselves to be terrorized.
I encourage my brothers and sisters, from all faiths and backgrounds, to support the community in Charleston, and the people of Emanuel AME Church, as they go through this challenging time, and I hope and pray that all of us can build a nation in which people can gather, pray, and build community without the threat of hate or violence.
All houses of worship are integral to American life. We will see a reluctance by the media and political leaders to call this terrorism or racism or an act by a White Supremacist. In the case of the shooting at the Oak Creek Gurdwara and other instances of hate violence directed at Sikhs who wear visible articles of faith, we see that bigots target the source of the Sikh community’s empowerment and strength. This is precisely what is at the root of the Charleston shooting. Black Lives Matter and Black Churches Matter. This is a watershed moment for our communities to join together and advance justice. If our houses of worship are not safe and respected, the fabric of America is weakened to its core.
Jasjit Singh is the executive director of SALDEF, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the oldest civil rights organization for Sikhs in the United States. He currently serves on DHS Secretary's Faith-Based Initiative and on the Executive Committee of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA).